Ever since the Islamic State attacked Paris, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have called for a more intense effort to destroy the caliphate. Yet despite the horrors wreaked in France, I’ve yet to see any political leader put forward a strategy that shows much promise of achieving that goal.
Republicans (and I refer to those with foreign policy expertise, not the bombastic Donald Trump or the bemused Ben Carson) rightly chastise President Barack Obama for a policy that has mostly failed to dent the Islamic State’s hold on physical and digital territory. Nor have U.S. efforts prevented the group from developing dangerous franchises in Libya and the Sinai, and mounting attacks in Europe.
Critics such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, accuse the White House of being slow to react and only doing so with “incremental” measures to supplement inadequate air strikes.
Indeed, Obama’s reaction to Paris was incremental: He pledged to send a small number of additional special-forces troops to Iraq (reportedly around 150) with a mission to raid Islamic State strongholds.
Yet despite their legitimate critiques, I’ve yet to see a responsible Republican put forward a plan that had a chance of working. Neither party seems to have developed goals or means that match the realities on the ground.
So in search of coherence, let’s look at what passes for strategy on both sides of the political spectrum. By eliminating proposals that are ill-conceived or phantasmagoric, we might arrive at a plausible approach.
Let’s start with the premise that our goal is to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State.
This doesn’t mean that the threat of jihadi terrorism will be eliminated. It does mean the liberation of the territory occupied by the Islamic State, which would undermine the group’s social-media appeal to foreign fighters and ability to expand abroad.
What are the proposals of Obama’s critics?
A few seek a large-scale increase in the U.S. troop presence. McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have recently proposed sending 10,000 U.S. troops to Syria and boosting the 3,500 trainers and advisers in Iraq to 10,000. These troops would supposedly provide logistics and intelligence support to a 100,000-strong Arab force from Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
This approach is a pipe dream for many reasons, even apart from the U.S. public’s reluctance to get heavily involved in another Mideast war.
First, the Arab states and Turkey won’t mount an invasion of Syria, even with U.S. encouragement and participation. States neighboring Syria - Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan - would not permit their territory to be used as a staging ground. Moreover, this proposal depends on another unrealistic assumption, promoted not just by Republicans but by Democrats such as Hillary Clinton: that it is possible to establish a no-fly zone inside Syria along the Turkish border.
This zone would supposedly be used as a staging ground from which Syrian rebels could attack both the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar Assad. However, the arrival of Russian war planes in Syria makes the no-fly zone a nonstarter. The Russians are bombing within the proposed zone, trying to wipe out rebel opponents of Assad.
Unless NATO is willing to engage in an air war with Moscow, a no-fly zone is a no-no. Russia’s economic reprisals against Turkey after a Turkish jet recently shot down a Russian fighter plane that had violated Turkish airspace are bound to undercut Ankara’s previous enthusiasm for such a zone.
So what then of Obama’s approach?
He, too, is betting on pipe dreams. U.S. air strikes in Syria are ineffective because there are too few reliable spotters on the ground to identify targets.
Our Kurdish allies in Iraq and Syria are good fighters but can’t liberate the Sunni Arab territories that make up the heartland of the Islamic State caliphate. As he made clear this week, Obama is betting heavily that an ongoing negotiating process involving Arab states, Europeans, Iran, and Russia will achieve a cease-fire in Syria and pave the way for a more coordinated Arab-Russian-Western campaign against the Islamic State.
But right now, Moscow and Tehran hold all the cards at the bargaining table. Their price for a cease-fire is unacceptably high: The West and Sunni Arab states must accept a transition process that guarantees Assad’s survival and does not guarantee an Islamic State defeat.
The only chance that negotiations will prove fruitful is if Obama finally acquires some leverage at the bargaining table. This will require him to do things he has so far been unwilling to do: make a personal commitment to this fight; appoint higher-level officials to direct it; give direct aid (and yes, send more special forces) to bolster Syrian and Iraqi Sunni tribes willing to fight the jihadis. Right now, many of those tribesmen believe America is secretly supporting the Islamic State, because it hasn’t been willing to back those who are ready to battle the caliphate.
Only when Obama makes that commitment will regional leaders and Putin take him seriously — and will any negotiations stand a chance.